Is opening in Test cricket the most daunting task? The opener walks in, takes guard, looks around and finds the vultures already closing in first thing in the morning – from the slips, from gully, perhaps from short leg. The character of the pitch is not known, even though the bowler’s characteristics are. Your team needs you to see off the new ball. But you don’t even know what is going to happen in those early minutes.
The best opening batsmen in modern Test cricket have used different methods to conquer the nerves. Virender Sehwag thrashed the new ball. Matthew Hayden charged the fast men. Justin Langer meditated with that eagle-eye stare.
M Vijay? He likes to watch the new ball closely and only put bat to it if he really has to.
Later this week, Vijay will mark his guard against James Anderson and Stuart Broad, England’s two highest wicket-takers of all time. India might not know who their second opener is yet, but Vijay’s spot is secure, especially after his gritty half-century against an Essex XI on a green, seaming pitch. The fact that India still are deliberating over whether to pick Shikhar Dhawan or KL Rahul as the second opener makes Vijay that much more valuable.
On the 2014 tour of England, Vijay was India’s best batsman. He was the third-highest run-maker overall, and the only batsman on either side to face more than 1000 balls. Vijay faced 1054 deliveries to score 402 runs at an average of 40.20, with a century and two half-centuries, one of them a match-winning third-innings 95 at Lord’s.
It was the middle of a productive period for Vijay, at a time when India played back-to-back-to-back-to-back Test series in South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia. He faced more balls than any other India batsman on those tours, scored more runs than anyone other than Virat Kohli, and was one of only three Indian batsmen with 40-plus averages.
The method he employed was heavily reliant on watchfulness and judgment outside the off stump. Of the 996 balls he faced of fast bowling on that 2014 England tour, for instance, Vijay left alone 403 (40.46%) and defended 351 (35.24%) – this meant he played other shots off less than a quarter of the balls he faced from the quicks.
This January, when India toured South Africa, he seemed to depart somewhat from that method, making a pronounced shuffle across his stumps and leaving the ball less often. In the first two Tests, his leave percentage against quicks was 35.33, down from 40.00% on India’s previous tour of the country in 2013-14.
He was out caught keeper, slips or gully in three of his first five innings of the series, before the old Vijay reappeared in his final innings of the tour, a three-and-a-quarter-hour display of vigilance on a Wanderers track of spiteful inconsistent bounce. He “only” made 25, but his innings laid the foundation for India to set a target well beyond South Africa’s reach. In that innings, he left 61 of the 127 balls he faced, all from the quicks, or an astonishing 48.03%.
Last week at Chelmsford, Vijay showed enough character to survive challenging conditions early on when the Indians lost Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara in the first half hour and then Ajinkya Rahane about an hour after electing to bat. Vijay was the only batsman to face more than 100 balls (113) during his nearly three-hour stay at the wicket.
Calling the conditions “tough” for any opening batsman, India coach Ravi Shastri said an opener in that situation would need to be “prepared to go through the grind”, which Vijay did remarkably well. For Shastri, what also stood out was Vijay’s mental discipline to deny the bowlers an opening at his end; by the time the middle order arrived, conditions had become easier to bat in.
Leaving the ball might come across as boring. Doing it well takes hours of understanding which ball to leave, when to stay patient, when to drive, when to rotate strike. A day before the warm-up match, which was India’s first day of training with the red ball on this tour, Vijay was on his own on a practice pitch to the side of the training nets. He was padded up, had his gloves on, and his helmet.
For about 15 minutes, like a pugilist doing shadow-boxing, Vijay shadow-practiced with the bat. Facing an imaginary bowler, he defended under his eyeline, moving his head first, then the feet, then the bat. He played the square drive, the cut, ducked a bouncer, pulled one. And, yes, he left a few alone. To his left Virat Kohli’s bat was making all the noise. Vijay was unruffled.
On Monday, at the training nets, Vijay faced Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Hardik Pandya and Shardul Thakur. When Pandya and Thakur began describing the imaginary fields they had set, Vijay didn’t let them finish. “Bowl to your strength. I’m playing normal,” he told them. His sole focus was on watching the ball, and only then deciding what to do.
Shastri observed Vijay from silly mid-off in a teapot stance. He would go on to ask Vijay what guard he had taken. “Hmm, leg-middle.”
Vijay missed twice as he tried to play the ball on the up. He stayed calm. He defended the next ball confidently, with bat meeting ball close to the pad. Vijay just wanted to feel normal. He did not want to be pushed by bowlers challenging him with their fields.
Asked to define the challenge of being an opener, Alastair Cook, a veteran of 156 Tests and approximately a million deliveries, was embarrassed to start with clichés. “You have got to be a pretty good judge of what to play and what not to play,” Cook said. “You need to put the bad ball away. How many more clichés can I come up with… need a little bit of luck along the way. It is a really challenging place to bat, certainly in the English conditions with the Dukes ball. One thing probably I will look back on when I do stop will be how proud I was of my longevity by being an opener against the new ball, against the fresh bowlers. But if you get past that, you know you have got a great platform.”
Cook recounted what his mentor Graham Gooch had told him early on: “Get past the new ball, you are in your 30s or 40s you have got your eye in. As the bowlers are getting tired you can really set up games of cricket.”
That’s Vijay’s responsibility and challenge: to set up games for India.